How to Level Up as a Video Game Composer
Being a video game composer is an infinitely rewarding discipline. There's something special about knowing that the music you create is shared within a format that entertains, inspires, and celebrates the value of play. Little compares to the satisfaction of knowing your tracks help set the tone, deepen the experience, and set a game apart.
Whether you're just getting started in your career or looking to build on your existing reputation, better composing doesn't depend on you owning the most expensive programs or equipment or having years upon years of instrumental experience. Practice and familiarity certainly help, but growth as a composer is also measured in how you approach each project, communicate with your collaborators, and rise to each and every creative challenge you face.
All the technical know-how in the world can't make up for understanding how to dial into a project, work well with others, and deliver a soundtrack that feels tailor-made for its game from the start.
Put developer intentions first
Composing game soundtracks isn't a solo endeavor. As much as it would be fuel for our egos to produce what we think represents our musical genius and aesthetic best, players will absolutely feel a disconnect if it's not written with the story, design and gameplay as the primary inspiration. Even if our music is excellent in its own right, people will remember our work most for how well it integrates with, elevates, and plays off the content of the game it's made for.
Above all, you have to dig in and understand the intentions of the developers and designers—your primary creative partners—first. Are there certain instruments that fit or contradict the overall worldbuilding of the game? What are the prominent emotions and intentions for the game at every given moment?
Is there a strict linear progression to the narrative development, or do your player's choices lead to differing outcomes that you need to account for (e.g., by keeping various possible transitions in mind)? How can you reinforce the visual and verbal impact of the moment (e.g., a beat of silence for deference or suspense or a swell of instruments to stoke the energy)?
A lot of these nuances cannot be independently sussed out from just a script or video capture. Don't hesitate to keep a policy of open communication as you process any references and write!
Experiment often and fail fast
The key to being a memorable creative partner is in exceeding expectations. While the developers' intentions should guide your overall approach, they're depending on you to also bring your own brand of added brilliance to the table. That means being willing to take creative risks, try out new ideas and put them in front of collaborators to pass their own judgment. You may even have partners who say they honestly don't know what they should want.
We sometimes find it efficient to test ideas by focusing our production polish on a just segment of an overall track before sharing a demo with creative decision makers. This can speed up the decision process and makes it easier for developers to see the direction you aim to go and flag any concerns early before you sink a whole lot of time, effort, and heart into something that won't be used.
Of course, not all of your out-of-the-box ideas will be received with praise. Some might even be ridiculed, so it's important to learn not to take criticism personally. Your collaborators will be far more invested in how quickly you can change course and provide other creative options to suit their implementation needs.
That's the idea behind failing fast—taking momentary rejection in stride and drumming up something new to solve their needs ASAP. This is one of the key capabilities that developers will remember you for, keeping you well-positioned for future projects down the road.
Tailor your sound for style, aesthetic, and implementation systems
The more projects you take on, the more you'll find yourself branching into different styles and musical aesthetics to set each game apart. One way to experiment with this is to apply different samples to the same video capture so you can analyze how different tones, instruments, or musical techniques interplay with what players will see. For up-and-coming composers, this method of demonstrating your iterative thought process alongside the same sample gameplay animation can be a great way to earn developer attention and win new projects.
What's nice about providing samples in context is that a great looking visual can help elevate the perception of a track and vice versa. This can be especially helpful when you're working toward a system of tracks that interact and evolve organically with gameplay—a concept that would be difficult to envision by just sound alone.
Document, document, document
While writing music and pumping out killer tracks may seem like the primary responsibility of a composer, a significant amount of effort must be spent on backing up your work with strong recordkeeping.
First, it's super helpful toward mentally preparing a creative rationale when faced with questions about why your music took a particular form or direction. You are the musical expert, and your developer partners will often lean on your expertise to guide the way if you have good enough reason. We sometimes prepare a "harmony guidebook" for ourselves to align the recurring descriptions the developers give for their vision with a consistent musical motif or sensibility we aim to carry throughout the soundtrack as it grows. When something works, we know to keep building on it and calling back to it.
Second, while it's possible to synthesize an entire soundtrack by samples and computer programs, you may have projects that plan for your compositions to be recorded with live instruments. Whether you're working with session soloists or a studio ensemble, not every performer may be able to read sheet music, so it saves them and you a lot of stress to chart the musical parts in multiple ways ahead of time. If synthesizing the target output ahead of time, take the initiative to export the full ensemble with individual parts both included and left out so performers can play by ear and hear how their own performance fits within the whole.
It's also equally important to make sure what you're asking musicians to record is humanly possible (computers can toot horns as long as you want, but people still need to breathe). Spending this extra time prepping for real life performers can help uncover trouble areas in your compositions you need to adjust. But who is to say! Maybe achieving a superhuman performance is core to the feel of the game—you may just have to accommodate what's written and what's capable of being recorded in post.